My maternal grandparents in Hartford, Connecticut, paid a door-to-door salesman a certain amount weekly for an upright piano, for the front room in their rented duplex. They were realizing a part of the “American Dream,” an aspiration for immigrants like them.
The piano provided their two daughters with the musical education that would be of use to them later in their careers, my aunt as a church pianist for her Methodist minister spouse, and for my mother as an elementary school teacher. There were plenty of boys and men who stuck with piano lessons too, providing great personal enjoyment for themselves as well as being the center of attention for family sing-alongs, if not concerts.
Why pianos?There were a lot of reasons why a piano was and is a difficult status symbol. It is heavy, expensive, has a tendency to go out of tune in a way that only a skilled piano tuner can remedy, and requires experts to move, even to a different floor in the same house. There were other musical instruments that were much more portable such as the autoharps of the Scandinavian mining and lumber camps of the west, and accordions that other ethnic groups introduced to America.
However, despite the downsides, pianos took over. Some experts say the rise of the piano coincided with the rise of the international consumer society in the mid- to late-1800s. A blog post titled “The Social History of Piano Teaching” written by English musician scholar Dr. Sally Cathcart notes that “the piano became an important symbol of the family’s social position, just as the harpsichord had been, and the preferred instrument for young ladies to learn and demonstrate accomplishment.”
Those who learned to play it well realized that a piano has a wider pitch range than most instruments — it can express emotions through many notes sounding at once and through variations the player can control such as sustainability of a tone and volume. Composers such as Mozart and Bach took to it, and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, published in 1801, became one of the most popular romantic piano compositions of all time — though the name didn’t get applied to it until years after the composer’s death.
A ladylike instrumentIt didn’t hurt that pianists are fun to watch, even if you only see them from the side or back. One can marvel at fingers flying over keys and the expression that develops once the beginner has mastered the basic technique.
Norwegian scholar Lise Karin Meling points out that the piano caught on with middle and upper classes because it allows a woman to make music while looking ladylike the whole time. Blowing into a horn while puffing out her cheeks is not quite so feminine, nor is twisting her body as a violin or viola requires. Worst of all, the straddling of an instrument like a cello looked positively immoral for a woman in the 1800s.
A concert-size harp might be considered the most ladylike instrument of all, but it lacks the tonal variation of a piano. As music became more complex, the plucked stringed harp gave way to the piano, a percussion instrument, with the strings hammered softly or dramatically rather than plucked.
Pianos were invented around 1700, and, though expensive at first, by the 1870s they were important features in the parlors of middle-class families in Europe and America. A large ad in the Laramie Daily Sentinel of 1871 advertises pianos of every type (grand, parlor grand, and square) as well as organs, pianofortes, and melodeons. (A pianoforte was the first piano, an Italian invention of the early 1700s; a melodeon is a small suction pump organ that looks like a piano.) Laramie buyers were encouraged to contact the W.W. Kimball Company in Chicago, which must have gladly shipped by rail to customers here.
Laramie home entertainmentPeople who played a musical instrument like the piano especially well were highly valued, especially in Victorian times. Laramie’s piano vendor, Steve Westfahl, says that it would not have been surprising for an 1890s home like the Ivinson Mansion in Laramie to have had both a piano and a parlor organ.
We know that the Ivinsons did have at least one piano, as they hired a local prodigy, Carrie Burton, to play for dinner parties. Later, Mrs. Ivinson saw to it that Carrie got a musical education at the precursor of UW prep and then Howard University. (See “Carrie Burton Overton — First African American Girl to Attend U.W.” published on the website “wyoachs.com” of the Albany County [Wyoming] Historical Society.)
At one time, home sing-alongs around the piano were a staple — now we are lucky if we can experience that camaraderie with friends and family around a campfire rather than in the living room. One friend suggests to me that popular music of today is not nearly as “singable” as the ballads of the past were — no longer so suitable for the parlor piano or the campfire sing-alongs.
Buying on creditWestfahl says: “Pianos enjoyed their popularity through the end of the 1800s before the phonograph was invented. In that day, if people wanted music, they had to make it themselves!” He adds: “The popularity of the upright piano took over in the 1890s and piano manufacturing reached its peak in 1920. Piano makers sprang up everywhere to meet the demand.”
My grandparents took advantage of something new — buying on credit. According to Westfahl,“Every self-respecting family literally had to have a piano as a sign of culture. Piano buying was a frenzy and in the 1920s began the modern credit industry. Where once there were 6,000 piano makers, today there are only four in the United States.”
Did the bottom fall out?From 6,000 manufacturers to four is certainly indicative of a decline.
There’s no doubt that the trend for a piano in every middle-class home has gone downhill. There are many other instruments that schoolkids are encouraged to try out in elementary schools, and digital instruments are now ubiquitous. I was astounded to learn over Memorial Day at the cemetery that “taps” usually played on the bugle or coronet by a veteran is digital — anyone in the American Legion who can push one button can probably play it. Some digital pianos can do that too now.
Old pianos a challengeTherefore it’s not surprising to learn that “selling a used piano can be a challenge” as Steve Cohen says in his 2020 website “pianobuyer.com.” Although buying and reselling acoustical and electronic pianos is his business, he points out that there are several reasons that a 50+ year-old, hand-me-down piano may not be too easy to sell.
For one thing, Cohen asserts that unless a piano is an antique with historical value, newer pianos from Asia are often higher quality. Also, digital pianos are replacing traditional pianos, especially for beginners; and, most significant of all, the market is flooded with used pianos now.
This nationwide dilemma has even reached Laramie’s secondary market. “We don’t allow dealers to bring them in anymore,” says Albert Tremblay of Bart’s Flea Market in Laramie, talking about both pianos and home organs. “They sit around for months, years even, taking up space. People can get them free on social media. Once a dealer had an electric organ here for three years and we ended up giving it away to someone who would take it.” Tremblay adds: “This probably isn’t what you want to hear, but it’s the facts.”
A donation might be an option for a good-quality piano, but Cohen points to an article by Sally Phillips published in 2013 with the ominous title “Piano Purgatory: The Donated Piano.”
Piano purgatoryPhillips and Cohen both point out that part of the cost of owning a traditional piano are the associated costs of tuning and maintaining it properly, not to mention the cost of moving it. There are very few things in a piano that can’t be fixed locally, though Westfahl estimates that a restringing can cost in the neighborhood of $1,600. But if you obtain the piano free, that might be a good deal. A complete rebuilding is much more expensive, but considering that a fine concert piano can cost $75,000 today, rebuilding is certainly a cost-effective option for some.
People who have inherited pianos or are faced with the immediate need to settle an estate that includes a piano, are often horrified to discover that this prized possession of the deceased relative has no value in today’s market. In fact, like a junker car, it may be necessary to pay someone to take it away. That explains why some cities — I noticed this once in Fort Collins — place old pianos outside in downtown spaces where people gather, for anyone to play.
Phillips claims that because there are thousands of parts in piano mechanics (over 12,000, claims Steinway), “A piano’s life is a long, downhill slope toward a complete rebuilding job.” That rebuilding is just not worth the time and cost for all but the best performance-grade pianos. All piano strings eventually need replacement, she says, and “any piano more than 20 years old is due for restringing for top professional use. A few sticky keys may lead to thousands of dollars in repairs.”
Donate to a museum or school?Tips for a tactful turndown are what Sally Phillips offers to schools, churches or museums. Don’t even consider a place like the Ivinson Mansion unless it is truly special. This local museum already has five pianos and three organs on display. Only one of those is played on occasion — in the auditorium of the Alice Hardie Stevens Center. Despite the handy acoustical piano, many musical groups performing there these days bring their own electronic keyboard or use recorded music.
Some of the pianos and organs the Ivinson Mansion displays are especially interesting. Two are of the “square” type — grand pianos with string configurations that allow for a rectangular cabinet rather than the typical curved shape of a concert grand. They were popular in the mid-1800s, though Westfahl says that the term “wagon box piano” to describe them is “unique to the Laramie Plains Museum.” Elsewhere in the industry they are called “square” even though they are actually rectangular, not to be confused with the “upright” piano, an 1890s innovation.
In LPM’s defense, there was such a thing as a “piano box wagon” one that duplicated the size and rectangular shape of the “square” piano in the days before automobiles. Such a wagon might have held a square piano with the legs taken off, though that was not its designed purpose. Perhaps the two that the LPM holds were brought west in such wagons, as they were both manufactured in the Civil War era — before the railroad took over freight hauling to Laramie in 1868.